October 5, 2012

Kitchen Assistant Confidential

As promised, a little about the chefs who were invited to Cakebread Cellars' American Harvest Workshop in Napa. Not only were they a fun-loving bunch of guys, they were key players in arguably the highlight of the event, two amazing dinners that showcased both their talents and the products of selected purveyors.

Included were David Hawskworth, who made a name for himself at Vancouver's West restaurant before launching his eponymous Hawskworth (it was the talk of the town last time I was in Vancouver) in the Rosewood Hotel Georgia; Cuban-born chef Louis Pous, who headed The Dining Room at Little Palm Island in the Florida Keys before being tapped to become chef for the resort's parent company, Noble House; Daniel Stern, who heads his own restaurant group in Philadelphia, including showpiece R2L; Louisiana-born Danny Trace, who cut his teeth at Commander's Palace in New Orleans and now heads the kitchen at Brennan's of Houston, and Will Bradof and Paul Wireman of Trio in Jackson, Wyoming.

For the two dinners, each chef drew an ingredient that he (yes, it was an all-male group, though there have been women chefs invited to previous workshops) had to cook with, typically one provided by one of the 18 purveyors. Not only did each have to build his dishes around the designated ingredient, he had to try to incorporate as many other purveyor ingredients as possible.

It wasn't exactly a hardship, what with the likes of Broken Arrow Ranch, which harvests wild antelope, Napa Valley Lamb Company, The Hog Island Oyster Company, Sonoma County Poultry (home to the excellent Liberty Ducks), Sparrow Lane vinegars, and Devil's Gulch Ranch for rabbit.

Below is a menu-planning session with the six chefs, led by Brian Streeter, Cakebread Cellars' culinary director and American Harvest Workshop manager.



It was probably not easy for the chefs at first, not knowing each other and having to riff out loud on ingredients as they conceptualized their dishes, but they gradually warmed to the task. A good-natured Pous changed course on his quail dish, incorporating  a plantain mofongo (smashed with bacon and garlic, Puerto Rican style) that the rest of the group cajoled out of him. Stern described an antelope loin preparation wrapped in Fatted Calf lardo with a fried green tomato salad dressed with walnut champagne vinegar (as mouth-watering in reality as it sounded at the meeting). Trace decided on a king salmon caviar club with avocado squash and Bellwether Farms creme fraiche. As each came up with his dish, Michael Weiss, professor of wine and spirits at the Culinary Institute of America, suggested Cakebread vintages and varietals that would pair best with them.

One of the best parts for the non-chefs was getting to cook in the kitchen with the professionals. I assisted Trace and sliced the avocado squash on a Japanese benriner mandoline, washed arugula, chopped tiny cherry tomatoes and peppers and most painstakingly of all, helped placed micro-green garnishes on the tomatoes. We really could have used tweezers, but thankfully it wasn't that kind of kitchen.

Cakebread President Bruce Cakebread, in blue shirt, flashing his knife skills. 
Danny Trace assembling his salmon caviar club sandwiches.
My handiwork, sliced avocado squash, forms the base. 

In process: David Hawksworth's albacore tataki with
smoked jalapeno and corn vinaigrette. 

Things I learned from my time in the kitchen: that plating a dish like the one above requires the eye of an abstract artist; that six chefs can really produce a lot of dirty pots and pans and it helps to have cheerful dishwashers; that sheep's milk ice cream really does taste wonderful (that is when made with Bellwether Farms product and paired, as Trace expertly did, with Gourmet Mushrooms bread pudding, Marshall's Farm honey and a red-wine beurre rouge), and that it's more fun to be in the kitchen with the cooks than with the wine-and-hors d'oeuvres crowd on the patio